27 July 2020

Adverbs: A Legitimate Aspect of Voice

A couple of months ago, I participated in a lively discussion over at the Short Mystery Fiction Society e-list on the role of adverbs in good writing. The highly respected Stephen King's most pithy writing advice is, "Read read read. Write write write. And lose the adverbs." A 2014 New Yorker article reports on an app called Hemingway that analyzes text and promises “[to make] your writing bold and clear.” Among other things, "the program calls out adverbs ('newly,' 'famously,' 'seemingly')." Most of the Short Mystery folks said that an occasional adverb might pass muster, but that the great majority, like Gilbert & Sullivan's "society offenders," never would be missed. One group member took what I consider an easy out, saying:

 The perfectly correct subject-verb-adverb construction strikes me as generally clunky and prone to increase clutter. 

"He walked quickly" could be "He hurried." 
"He talked quickly" could be "He yammered."  
"She ate quickly" could be "She wolfed."   
As above, adverbs tend to be less descriptive—added to modify verbs in a more abstract, conceptual way—than choosing more descriptive verbs. 

This argument stacks the deck against adverbs by using as an example "quickly," a verb as dull and overused as similar manner verbs—"suddenly," for example—and degree verbs such as "very," "almost," "quite," and "totally."

That's not the kind of adverb I'm talking about. In the hands of a writer who happens to have an adverbial narrative voice, adverbs can be as lively and evocative as verbs like "yammered" and "wolfed" and a lot more fun to read than "hurried." Eschewing adverbs is a fashion, albeit one that has lasted a considerable amount of time—almost a century, if you want to count from Hemingway's first two novels, both published in 1926.

My very favorite adverbial voice is that of L.M. Montgomery, author of the beloved children's classic Anne of Green Gables. I’m fond of Anne, but my favorite is Emily of New Moon, first published in 1923. Like Anne, Emily is a little orphan girl transplanted to Prince Edward Island. She’s also an aspiring writer.

Here are some delicious examples of adverbial writing in context that have stuck in my mind for almost seventy years. Not only do they add color to the narrative voice. They build character just as well as the other parts of speech in the passages in which they appear.

“It was one of your mother’s aprons when she was a little girl, Emily,” said Aunt Laura comfortingly, and rather sentimentally. 
“Then,” said Emily, uncomforted and unsentimental, “I don’t wonder she ran away with Father when she grew up.” 

Emily gasped. It seemed very dreadful to be called a little cuss. But Ilse had said it quite admiringly. 
“Well, where are you going now?” asked Ilse. “There’s a thunderstorm coming up.” 
So there was. Emily did not like thunderstorms. And her conscience smote her. 
“Oh,” she said, “do you suppose God is bringing up that storm to punish me because I’ve run away?” “No,” said Ilse scornfully. “If there is any God, he wouldn’t make such a fuss over nothing.”
“My epic,” said Emily, diligently devouring plum cake, “is about a very beautiful high-born girl who was stolen away from her real parents when she was a baby and brought up in a woodcutter’s hut.” “One av the seven original plots in the world,” murmured Father Cassidy. 

  If Montgomery had written, “said Emily earnestly,” the adverb could have been deleted with my blessing. But “diligently devouring plum cake”—how can the reader fail to be enchanted? This passage, by the way, was my introduction to the concept of the seven original plots. Writers may disagree on the list, but we all suspect it exists.

“What do you think of us?” demanded Aunt Nancy. “Come now, what do you think of us?” 
“That isn’t a fair question,” cried Emily. 
“You think,” said Aunt Nancy, grinning, “that I’m a hideous old hag and that Caroline isn’t quite human. She isn’t. She never was—but you should have seen me seventy years ago. The men were mad about me. The women hated me, of course--all but Caroline here. You worshipped me, didn’t you, Caroline? Caroline, I wish you didn’t have a wart on your nose.” 
“I wish you had one on your tongue,” said Caroline waspishly. 

 I’ve cut some of the passages for the sake of brevity but not a single adverb.

Note also that Montgomery’s adverbs are not Tom Swifties:

“Get into the refrigerator,” he said coldly, “or I’ll shoot.
“Do you think you’re going to walk across this desert,” he said drily, “without your boots?”

It's easy to make fun of something, in this case adverbs and adverbial writing, that it’s trendy not to respect. But as writers, we owe it to ourselves not to dismiss them without investigating what they’re like when they’re done well by a master writer whose work has sold in the tens of millions and survived for more than a hundred years.


  1. Liz, I think we need to do what works for a particularly story and style/tone that we're going for in that story, and also for our general style. I think some people get a rule stuck in their heads and then that's it, you have to do it that way. But I hope writers decide for themselves what works, as long as it does work and makes sense. I turn off the grammar checker in Word because it doesn't like fiction style at all, with incomplete sentences and other things that I consider style, or my style anyway.

  2. Paul, I agree heartily. And I turn off the grammar checker AND the Spellcheck on all my computers because I still think people are smarter than computers, and I trust my instincts with words more than any program. More than many editors too. I can still get steamed up thinking about the proofreader who tromped on one of my jokes in my first novel at a major publisher AFTER I'd signed off on the galleys. (Remember galleys?) My protagonist said about a kind of Neanderthal-looking character (if it isn't incorrect to stereotype Neanderthals these days), "I don't like his eyebrow," and they put in the "s" that ruined the joke.

  3. Liz, I love this stuff. And like you and Paul, I long ago turned off GrammarCheck.

    I've cut way back on my adverbs, over the years, but I agree with all the points you made, here. Hey, look through some of the Harry Potters if you want adverbs--they're everywhere.

    And I'd forgotten about Swifties. Now you've made me want to do an SS column about them! My favorite: "I love Venus de Milo," she said disarmingly.

  4. This was a fun post. I do try to pare down the adverbs and unnecessary words, but I ignore most rules when the adverb seems right or the extra phrasing adds rhythm and depth to the sentence. The trouble with rules is they can be applied blindly and the writer ends up with a dull, mechanical text. Right now I'm reading a new novel by a writer who clearly loves a well-placed adverb, and I have no complaints as a writer or a reader. It's beautifully done.

  5. Liz, I love the Neanderthal eyebrow/s joke. And curse that editor. I hope they had a hard life ;-) .

  6. Completely and totally on-board with you, Liz. Thank you for standing up as a defender of the adverb!

    In that SMFS discussion you mentioned, you said: I'm still wondering how a whole part of speech can become "incorrect" by fiat.
    One author replied: It can't.
    And I said: But it can be vilified by people giving bad writing advice.

    Whether it's a crutch word or a common phrase, a part of speech or a piece of punctuation, they are all perfectly valid – if used correctly, judiciously, and in service to the story.

    As authors, we need to be continually learning our craft and improving our work, filling our toolbox with tools and techniques and learning how to use them to make our stories come alive in someone else’s head.

    In art, sometimes that will be with a pencil sketch or a line drawing in India ink, sometimes watercolors are the best medium. Other times we can only convey our vision through the depth of oils. But then there are the times when we just might be inspired to go to town with fingerpaints or sidewalk chalk or a can of spray paint on the underside of an overpass. They're all art, and they all tell a story, just in very different ways.

    In cooking, we add seasonings to food in small doses – even a heavy-handed cook doesn't (usually) dump the entire tin of chili powder into the pot, at least not intentionally (or so one would hope!).

    It's much the same with all these words, phrases, parts of speech, and even forms of punctuation that we're repeatedly told should "never" appear in our writing. Learn to use them correctly, to good effect, and in service of the story, and your readers will love you for the escape reading your book gave them from the real world. Throw them in by the handful, willy-nilly, with no idea of what you're actually doing (or because you don't want to take the time to learn how to convey meaning in a different – maybe better, maybe not – way, and you run the risk of letting your readers will trip over your clunky prose and fall right out of your book.

  7. One of my favorite uses of an adverb, from Jane Austen's Mansfield Park:
    "[Fanny's] cousins' former gaiety on the day of a ball was no longer surprising to her; she felt it to be indeed very charming, and was actually practising her steps about the drawing-room as long as she could be safe from the notice of her aunt Norris, who was entirely taken up at first in fresh arranging and injuring the noble fire which the butler had prepared."

    That "entirely taken up" is Aunt Norris to the life.

  8. Wow, I don't' know where to start. John, do write that post. You do these essays on language as our kind of literati use it inimitably. ;) Susan, who's the writer in question? Since you're praising, surely you can tell us. Lyn, isn't it wonderful that we're not only having this discussion, but still remembering and savoring the one on Short Mystery? Let's remember this moment next time someone accuses us unjustly of doing nothing but brangle, as Georgette Heyer used to say. Eve, what a wonderful passage altogether. I adore "injuring the noble fire which the butler had prepared."
    Let no one question whether Austen deserved her reputation!

  9. I love a good Tom Swiftie.

    “Now I’ll have to grade these papers all over again,” Professor Tom remarked.


  10. I just googled "Tom Swifty" to see if it would come up with any good examples quickly. It sent me to Wikipedia first (it always does), where I found the following:

    Since many adverbs end in "ly" this kind of pun was originally called a Tom Swiftly, the archetypal example being "'We must hurry,' said Tom Swiftly."

    These two sentences are completely humorless, and it would be impossible to explain to a being from another planet (or even a non-speaker of English) why we find Tom Swifties funny. Can anyone explain why a good Tom Swifty, as Josh says, is funny or at least satisfying, and the Wikipedia exegesis is not? Maybe that's another blog topic: humor in crime fiction. Or has everybody already done one? I happen to think the word "homorous" is the kiss of death, while "funny" is a great compliment.

  11. Great post Elizabeth. Proof positive that in the hands of a master wordsmith the adverb can be made to do first-rate work. The rest of us, though, really ought to mind our "ly" words (along with our "p"s and "q"s!

  12. Thanks, Tricia. And Doolin, I hear you. Don't do it too quickly if you're going to do it poorly, huh? ;)


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